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When President Chiang Kai-shek passed away in 1975, the Executive Yuan decided to build the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall as a place for the people of Taiwan to remember him. After five years of work, the memorial was completed. In the 1990s, Taiwan transitioned from an authoritarian system to liberal democracy, and began to examine how President Chiang Kai-shek had violated human rights during the martial law era. In recent years there has been an ongoing debate over whether to continue commemorating a dictator with a grand building in the heart of the capital. How the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall should be transformed has become an important issue for Taiwanese society.

In 1949, the government of the Republic of China decamped to Taiwan. President Chiang Kai-shek, who had resigned from the leadership, resumed his duties the following year, establishing a long-term dictatorship in the name of reclaiming mainland China. Under the authoritarian regime, the authorities tightly controlled thought, suppressed critical opinions, and shaped a strongman cult through the educational and cultural systems. President Chiang Kai-shek was hailed as “the savior of mankind,” “a great man of the world,” “a beacon of freedom,” and “the Great Wall of the nation.”

However, during this period the ruling authorities also froze the Constitution and expanded the power of the President with the Temporary Provisions Effective During the Period of National Mobilization for Suppression of the Communist Rebellion. The long-term imposition of martial law violated the guarantee of the basic rights of the people in the Constitution, and as the “White Terror” ran rampant, countless people suffered. This approach to running the country triggered waves of resistance in Taiwan society, fighting for dignity and a reasonable social system and way of life. From the 1960s movement for the formation of political parties, through the dangwai (“outside the party” [i.e., KMT]) democratic movement of the 1970s and 1980s and the democratization movement of the 1990s, ultimately to the first transition of power in 2000, the people of Taiwan worked for decades to end authoritarian rule and gradually build a liberal democracy.

Examining Abuses of Power and Preventing the Return of Authoritarianism

The third wave of democratization in the 1980s saw many countries transition from authoritarian to democratic systems. All of them faced the question of how to deal with their past—how should dictators be held accountable for their abuses of power and lawlessness during their period of authoritarian rule? Many innocent victims suffered under authoritarian oppression—how should they be compensated materially and spiritually? How should the historical truth of the authoritarian rule of the past be written and preserved so that it can enter the shared memory of society and prevent the re-emergence of authoritarian strongmen who would abuse their power?

In response, various countries have adopted different measures of leniency and strictness. For example, Germany and Eastern European countries have pursued accountability and clearing of the public sphere in a severe manner to prevent the remnants of communism from harming them. Some countries in Central and South America, meanwhile, have conducted meticulous historical investigations and vowed “never again.” The Spanish Congress of Deputies passed the Historical Memory Law to remove monuments dedicated to the dictator Francisco Franco and to address social rifts and strengthen the democratic Constitution.

Such practices are called “transitional justice.” In addition to holding perpetrators accountable and comforting victims, one of the main goals of transitional justice work is to seek and disseminate historical truths to shape a common societal memory, ensuring that the public remembers the harm caused by abuses of power and that their democratic beliefs are strengthened, preventing the potential return of authoritarian rule.

Taiwan’s transition from authoritarianism to democracy is known as a “quiet revolution.” The main feature and advantage of this is that it enabled the country to gradually and gently establish a democratic system without large-scale bloodshed or huge costs to society. However, because these changes came without the dramatic shift of a violent revolution, those responsible for abuses during the authoritarian period were not held accountable; the party, government, military, and affiliated organizations were not substantially purged; and even the ideology and deviant values of the old era were not reviewed and reflected on, enabling them to continue to exist. Taiwanese society still possesses a legacy of the strongman worship created during the authoritarian era, and continues to commemorate the authoritarian ruler Chiang Kai-shek with a massive hall and park.

The Need for Transitional Justice

After the elections of 2016, the Democratic Progressive Party returned to power, and the Legislative Yuan passed a succession of legislation related to transitional justice. In 2018, the Executive Yuan established the Transitional Justice Commission, tasking it with the mission of pursuing transitional justice. One of its main tasks was to investigate the history of the authoritarian period and uncover the truth behind political cases. The Commission also established the Transitional Justice Database, based on government files. According to statistics, a total of 1,153 individuals were sentenced to death during the authoritarian period; President Chiang Kai-shek intervened in the sentencing of 970 people, 259 of which were given the death penalty. In these cases, 18 individuals had originally been sentenced to reformatory education, and five had been found not guilty, but their judgments were changed to a death sentence by President Chiang Kai-shek with the swipe of a pen. During the martial law period, Taiwan claimed to be “Free China” with a democratic and constitutional government, but allowed its leaders to directly command the execution of political opponents, seriously endangering human rights.

The Transitional Justice Commission’s investigation report also noted that during the martial law period, the party and state were essentially one, undermining the constitutional system; President Chiang Kai-shek, as the leader of the party, government, and army, concentrated power in one person. The authorities conducted surveillance of society, establishing a number of institutions to this end. In the 1980s, the Ministry of Justice Investigation Bureau alone had 1,800 investigators, 5,000 agents, and 49,000 employees. The authoritarian government made indiscriminate arrests, with 21,257 individuals victims of politically motivated detention.

Due to the uncontrolled abuse of power by state leaders, the people of Taiwan were generally victimized regardless of ethnic background. Even waishengren, the people who came to Taiwan with the ROC government in the wake of the Chinese Civil War and made up around 10% of the population, accounted for as much as 46% of politically motivated cases during the White Terror.

Transitional justice is a project of social restoration that aims to demonstrate justice, build solidarity, and strengthen collective identity. Through investigations and compensation, political victims and their families have been able to receive some comfort, by making the historical truth public so that everyone understands how Taiwan society was generally victimized, and ethnic antagonisms may be resolved; as well, by exposing and criticizing the abuse of power by authoritarian rulers, Taiwan has been able to establish the value of freedom and democracy and consolidate the democratic system. This is why the work of transitional justice has been so important for Taiwan and its liberal democratic system.

Democratic Society and Communicating with the Masses

In 2021, the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) released its Democracy Index, with Taiwan ranked as a “full democracy” at 8th out of 167 countries. In 2022, in its annual study released by the human rights organization Freedom House, despite a decline in democracy globally Taiwan still scored high and was rated as a free country, ranking 17th out of 210 countries around the world.

Today’s democratic Taiwan must bear in mind its history of human rights violations under the authoritarian system of the past and affirm its modern values of freedom and democracy. Only in this way can the entirety of society firmly defend our democratic system against internal or external erosion.

The Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall is a product of a particular era. Its purpose was to commemorate an authoritarian strongman, which runs contrary to the values of freedom and democracy held today. However, the way in which power is exercised in democratic Taiwan should not be top-down as it was in the authoritarian period. A democratic society must emphasize communication, persuasion, and consensus-building. The question of how to deal with the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall should be worked through together by society to form a plan that a majority of people can accept. The Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall has thus entered a transitional period, and it is precisely through communication and discussion across all sectors of society that it hopes to become an acceptable, appropriate public space.

In fact, since the 1990s, the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall and its adjacent plaza have repeatedly been venues for mass gatherings and demonstrations, and what was originally a space for authoritarian worship has faced constant challenges. In 1990, thousands of students gathered in the plaza, sparking off the Wild Lily Student Movement calling for the dissolution of the National Assembly and the lifting of martial law; in 2008, the Wild Strawberry Student Movement protested against the Assembly and Parade Act’s restriction of people’s rights; since 2013, the Gongsheng Music Festival has been held here in an annual commemoration of the February 28 Incident; the marriage equality movement gathered force here in 2014, as did the indigenous self-determination movement in 2015. All of these have been closely intertwined with the pursuit of democracy, openness, and diversity in Taiwanese society. In recent years, the area around Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall has become an important place for demonstrating universal values, such as through commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Tibetan Uprising and voicing support for Hong Kong’s anti-extradition movement.

Since Taiwan’s democratization in 2000, the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall Management Office has continuously organized exhibitions and educational activities on the themes of freedom & democracy, human rights history, and transitional justice, as well as launched a variety of cultural and artistic activities to help lay the groundwork for such transition. For the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, located in a prime area of Taipei City, the task of transforming from a symbol of authoritarian worship to a space that manifests democratic values is an important one during this transitional period.